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radioactive decay(ray-dee-oh-ak -tiv) The spontaneous transformation of one atomic nucleus into another with the emission of energy. The energy is released in the form of an energetic particle, usually an alpha particle, beta particle (i.e. an electron), or positron, sometimes accompanied by a gamma-ray photon. The unstable isotopes of an element that can undergo such transformations are called radioactive isotopes, or radioisotopes. The emission of a particle from the nucleus of a radioisotope results in the production of an isotope of a different element, as in the beta decay of carbon–14 to nitrogen–14 or the alpha decay of radium–226 to radon–222. The isotope produced is itself often radioactive.
The average time taken for half a given number of nuclei of a particular radioisotope to decay is the half-life of that radioisotope; values range from a fraction of a second to thousands of millions of years. See also radiometric dating.
Collins Dictionary of Astronomy © Market House Books Ltd, 2006
radioactive decay[¦rād·ē·ō′ak·tiv di′kā]
The spontaneous transformation of a nuclide into one or more different nuclides, accompanied by either the emission of particles from the nucleus, nuclear capture or ejection of orbital electrons, or fission. Also known as decay; nuclear spontaneous reaction; radioactive disintegration; radioactive transformation; radioactivity.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.